Previously on your favourite game...

We’ve all been there – staring at our laptop screens, gripped as the final minutes of our favourite TV series slowly edges away. And when done right, instead of a sweet feeling of narrative satisfaction washing over us, these season finales bring about a sense of longing that can’t be satiated until the new series is released. It’s this kind of feeling that (we assume) episodically released games such as Tales from the Borderlands and The Wolf Among Us seem to aim for. But the question is, do they actually succeed?

Episodically released games (for the three of you that haven’t heard of them already) are released in sections regularly over a period of time, rather than as a whole package, and they’re pretty big news in the current gaming landscape. The most notable recent releases include Telltale Games’ adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, and the follow-up to the hugely popular Resident Evil: Revelations (which is actually being released in a few weeks, if we’re being picky). The point being here is that owing to people’s constantly improving broadband speeds, and the rise of digital releases, this format of publishing titles seems to be on the rise; so it’s a good time to ask whether it’s the right choice for gamers, or simply a cheap marketing gimmick.

“I say screw it, in fact, SCREW EVERYTHING.”

You’re A Drip

Now, when you release a game over a period of weeks rather than in one go, there are certain things you need to factor in that will affect its plot, characters and even gameplay. This is because, at its core, an episodically released game is in fact a completely different experience to a full title, and because it’s such a stretch from a ‘normal’ release, it needs to be more engaging in order to hook gamers in again and again. When you pick up a title like Assassin’s Creed Unity or Far Cry 4, it’s very easy to quickly get swept up in a vast open world and extensive character progression system; and as you hack and blast your way through the closing hours you come to realise that Friday has quickly turned into Sunday and you simply cannot explain your whereabouts.

An episodically released game in comparison can feel like a slightly fractured experience, if not properly executed.

An episodically released game in comparison can feel like a slightly fractured experience, if not properly executed. When a game is released as a series of episodes, developers sacrifice its potential for immersion, and so must offer gamers more of a reason to keep playing it week-in, week-out.

A Real Page Turner

This is something independent developer Telltale games understand, and probably the main reason their games have become so successful. Whilst gameplay is a core part of their titles, character development and plot take precedence, encouraging gamers to play not strictly for the experience of playing itself, but rather to see what happens to the cast of characters they swiftly become attached to.

The juxtaposition between the young, weaker Clementine and player character Lee (who is more than capable of handling himself) forms one of the central dynamics of their popular adaptation of The Walking Dead. Players come to care for Clementine in their increasingly paternal role, much like they would characters from an actual series, and so are encouraged to buy each new instalment to see how her fate is decided.

It’s a safe bet that digital Ramsay has the same ‘cut-throat’ attitude…

In their latest release, an adaptation of Game of Thrones, players take control of three members of a previously little known house as they try to preserve their family in the wake of the bloody events that the series covers. Again it seems that the characters are king, and it’s easy to see. Even in the opening episode, it’s amazing how well developed and brilliantly acted each protagonist is; Telltale are able to sustain a sense of immersion over a long period of time purely by making their characters so believable. This is all without mentioning that characters from the series are recreated with startling accuracy, and voiced by the actors that made them so popular. Again, Telltale manage to hook in a returning audience of dedicated fans who simply want to spend more time with their favourite characters from the TV show, and so will be tempted to purchase each episode to fill the gaps of the series.

That’s A Bit Pacey

Gameplay of course is a wholly separate matter, and must be just as carefully catered to episodic releases. In order to play through five or six separate episodes, players must be kept interested by a cleverly paced game, which means that normal releases can’t simply be split up into a few chunks and released one at a time. This is something that the developers of Japanese horror game Siren: Blood Curse hit the mark with. Each set of chapters featured an excellent mixture of slower paced, stealth focused missions and those that offered players more weaponry (within the limits of the genre) with which to tackle the undead hordes. All of which managed to build to a satisfyingly intense climax. What this means is that for an episodic release to be truly successful, it has to be a core part of the experience, and not just a way to market the game.

In order to play through five or six separate episodes, players must be kept interested.

You Be Drippin’

The weird thing, and what really troubles me about this method of publishing, was that after a lot of hype about episodic releases, developers started releasing their previously episodic games as a whole download, on the same day, for less money than buying the episodes separately. Above anything else this really begs the question: why?! Why did they expect players to purchase episodically? Why all the hype about it in the first place? And most importantly why would they later re-release the game as a disc version? Playing through the game in full actually felt hampered by constantly watching the ‘Previously’ and ‘Next time’ cinematics that book-ended each episode, as I’d literally just played through them ten minutes ago. What this undeniably proves is that the exclusivity of episodically published games goes both ways; it’s hard to divide a full title into separate releases, and it’s also difficult to ‘squash’ an episodic one together.

‘Howl’ they justify the next episodic release?

Does It Work?

In answer to the question that forms the title of this piece, I’d go with a tentative ‘yes’. When done properly (and for the right reasons) episodic releases can heighten suspense, sustain a high level of immersion, and make anticipating the new release a bit of an occasion – like waiting for your favourite TV show to air again. In too many cases, however, it seems to be tacked on at the end of production, as a marketing method rather than an integral mechanic. This is why I’m unfortunately not too excited by the recent spate of episodic releases, because I know that eventually they’ll be released as full downloads or hard-copies that are much more convenient and probably cheaper. Right now there simply isn’t the draw for me to play games like Resident Evil: Revelations 2, which is a real shame because under normal circumstances it probably would have been a release day purchase!

On a final, more worrying note: what happens if an episodic title doesn’t sell very well? That’s the fear hanging over the Xbox One exclusive D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die, where fans are concerned they may never see a conclusion to Hidetaka “SWERY” Suehiro’s new episodic series due to poor sales. A potential pitfall of episodic gaming, perhaps…